October 9, 2008

Fear Not

The real purpose of my DC adventure was art: I'd come here to visit some specific Museums and see some specific (long-time favourite) artworks. What unfolded was a glorious 5 day orgy of art. Better and more than I'd expected. I was excited - at long last - to be able to visit the Smithsonians and as soon as I'd checked in to my hotel, I headed straight out again for the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian). I was (hoping for and) expecting a lot and was not disappointed – I found the entire museum, its layout, displays, organisation, placement, construction, details and vision breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring: The building itself is powerfully evocative of the landscape – of mesas and desert, mountains, water and sky. I watched the recommended introductory film and was quite moved: the voices of narrators from many nations wove together to tell the stories, beliefs, hopes and dreams of their people and I was touched at the beauty and potential of such an undertaking as this. It was powerful. The museum is laid out in a number of sections: Our Universe; Our Peoples; Our Lives; and Return To a Native Place. Each a huge amalgamation of artifacts and information from numerous tribes. By the time I arrived at the Museum it was already mid-afternoon, and I didn't want to rush through the exhibits, so I decided to return on another day to explore them at leisure. However, my return visit did not measure up to the promise of the first: I found the organisation of the exhibits confusing and the manner in which objects were displayed – behind thick panes of reflective glass and often only dimly lit - to have a frustrating and alienating, rather than engaging effect. The highlight of this visit (apart from the cafeteria which offered a stunning array of exquisite native foods) to be an outdoor installation work entitled Always Becoming by Tewa artist Nora Naranjo-Morse. This work, made of sticks, fibres and clay is meant to erode over time. Bright and early on the 2nd day, I headed to the Renfrew Gallery to see James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly. This work has long been a favourite of mine – though I’d never before had the opportunity to see it in the real. I was startled to realise that the route I took went right past the White House. I didn't bother to stop: one has priorities. I entered the Renfrew only to find that James Hampton’s Throne was no longer housed there, but now resided several blocks away at the National Gallery of American Art. I decided to walk through the Renfrew Collections and was intrigued by a number of wonderful works.Couldn’t help myself though, I was soon on my way again in search of James Hampton. This work was one of the main reasons for my visit to DC. Something about the work has always spoken to me: James Hampton did not consider himself – nor was he referred to by others as – an artist. Yet, the work he was driven to produce is glorious and visionary: it was his elaborate, majestic, raw and profound vision of heaven. Made of the lowliest of materials – bits of foil, cans, jars, paper, mirrors and other found ‘detritus’, and constructed mostly in his spare time and at night, the work is none-the-less monumental: it inspires awe and speaks a visionary language that even from afar made my heart pound. The work is now housed in it’s own purpose-built niche and the experience of standing in its presence – in the presence of unique and compelling vision - was extraordinarily moving.A sign over the central Throne reads “Fear Not”. I’ll take that as a personal message not to fear the visionary in myself. James Hampton set the tone for what was to follow: 3 more days of glorious works from Georgia O’keefe to Andy Goldsworthy; Jean Dubuffet to Henry Moore; Contemporary Kinetic African Sculpture; A room full of Matisse Cut-outs; the unexpected pleasures of Paul Manship bronzes (including a crow!) Stunning assemblage and other found-object works;and an exhibition of exquisite Indian Paintings by George de Forest Brush.
(sorry, no photos were allowed at this one, but if you want to check it out for yourself, go here: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/brushinfo.shtm).
Another highpoint was a room within an exhibition of Hip Hop portraiture and art at the National Portrait Gallery. The room featured installations by Hip Hop artists along with a stunning poem written by Nikki Giovanni. The poem was written on the wall, but had also been recorded by the poet to play as a kind of continuous narration. It was powerful and I found it so moving that I came back to the room several times to hear it again. Before leaving the museum, I felt compelled to copy it down. You'll find it in its entirety in the next post.
I spent the week falling in love again with art and remembering why I had long ago decided to become an artist: I felt the flush of that initial impetus to create beauty; to make things that have the power to move others; to communicate a raw and personal vision. I may never achieve the heights of the works I saw in DC, but I remember now that the goal is a worthy one.